Meaning in Music, Revisited (and with mention of cheese)

Way back in September, before we started vol. 1, chapter 1 (it seems so long ago now!), I pondered whether musical meaning could ever go beyond social correlation. The question came up as a result of Prof. Taruskin’s stated intention in his introduction to address the full spectrum of musical meanings as he progressed through his historical narrative. Since the discussion of that post has recently started up again, I thought I would return to this issue, since it came up again in last week’s reading.

J.S. Bach’s Toccata in F (BWV 540) for organ is a gem of an example to demonstrate the way tonally conceived music manipulates desires in the listener. Bach creates and prolongs that desire by writing a pedal point that is an astounding 54 measures long. He then provides a medial resolution by returning to the tonic, before launching right back into creating, prolonging, and frustrating the listener’s desires, whipping them into such a frenzy that the final resolution to the tonic is tantamount to salvation.

And this reaction to the music is not completely subjective, says Taruskin. It takes our encoded understanding of tonally organized music (something assumed to be shared by a quorum of listeners) and creates a sequence of events to play off of those shared understandings, much like a dramatist creates a narrative arc moving from conflict to resolution.

Bach’s Toccata is one of the earliest pieces to so dramatize the working out of its form-building tonal functions, adding an element of emotional tension that is inextricably enmeshed in its formal structure. The listener’s active engagement in the formal process is likewise dramatized. The listener’s subjective reaction to the ongoing tonal drama is programmed into the composition. Subjectivity, one may say, has been given an objective correlate. It even makes a certain kind of figurative sense to ascribe the desire for resolution to the notes themselves, objectifying and (as it were) acting out the listener’s involvement. (II, 213)

In a way, then, the music is indeed acting on the listener, through a set of socially encoded signs.

We miss something, however, by discussing only the tonal organization of a piece (and watching it on youtube). What we miss is the physical experience of hearing the music live, in a church, with massive ranks of organ pipes. There is a big difference between listening to this piece through headphones, where the distance between the speaker and your eardrums is minimal, and hearing it in a church. In the acoustic environment of a church, sound waves pound against the entire body, creating physical reactions that can sometimes be unsettling, as anyone who has felt his chest rattle against an organ’s rumbling low note can attest. In this way, the music can be not only metaphorically, but literally moving.

How could a physical/sound-wave analysis of this toccata enlighten us to the effectiveness of the piece? At what points do the sound waves support our tonal readings of the piece? Where do they crosscut our expectations?

These kinds of contextual/experiential insights seem critical to me when discussing a piece like Bach’s Toccata in F, especially since a live experience of the music was the only possible way to hear it in Bach’s time. Leaving it out is like tasting a fine cheese while plugging your nose—you can comment on shape and color and texture, but will have a severely dulled experience of taste. And isn’t the taste of the cheese the most important part?

6 Comments

  1. The listener’s active engagement in the formal process is likewise dramatized. The listener’s subjective reaction to the ongoing tonal drama is programmed into the composition. Subjectivity, one may say, has been given an objective correlate. It even makes a certain kind of figurative sense to ascribe the desire for resolution to the notes themselves, objectifying and (as it were) acting out the listener’s involvement. (II, 213)

    yeah, to ascribe a contemporary parallel, this makes me think of the current modern jazz environment – the “encoded” shared understanding of jazz harmony, the communal recognition of typical phrases–a type of language. jazz too, has always been about the experience of transmission– that is, the unique, unrepeatable performance of music at a particular time and place. however, the current jazz realm seems to value the transmission of the abstract and esoteric ( “outness”, “hipness” ) rather than the revelatory, unambiguous nature of a bach invention or fugue.

    perhaps it is impossible to attempt to compare the tonal implications of two genres of music so distant from each other historically( as bach was writing some relatively “out” and “hip” music during his time) — nevertheless, i think the harmonic and melodic language bach employed was more in line with what the public could delineate as specific emotions.

  2. This is perhaps my all-time favorite organ piece by Bach. While I agree with the comment that one cannot compare with a live performance, listening to it in a large room with good sound system and cranked up is not an unpleasant comparison. But that is besides the point. The real nice thing about this article is that it helps bring out some of the mystery of Bach and how he did what he did. His music is filled with episodes where he plays with the (baroque) listener’s ear and suggesting that “I am about to end this” then use a deceptive technique to shift in an unexpected direction, all the while building incredible tension. Good examples are the D minor keyboard concerto (BWV 1052), first movement, and of course BWV 540. One other aspect is the really strong rythmic drives, and the “hammer like blows” of the initial chords that start right after the second pedal solo. In a way, Bach was able to play with the more limited harmonic style of his day (at least to our ears) and really push them to the limit using an almost infinite bag of harmonic tricks.

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